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Volume 21 No. 2
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NBA proves to be solid rebounder

Revenue down after lockout, but league delivers record TV audiences

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

While 20 percent of the NBA season and $400 million in league revenue was lost to the two-month lockout, there were enough story lines for the NBA this season to nearly match last year’s average attendance and to deliver record television audiences on TNT, ABC and NBA TV.

“The NBA did a remarkable job coming out of their labor issues,” said David Abrutyn, global managing director and senior vice president of IMG Consulting, which counts NBA sponsor Kia as a client. “Part of what helped was the intensity created by a compressed schedule, which produced more meaningful games, so the core fan had to love that. If the playoffs are as compelling as last year and you have the right teams making deep runs, they could get most of their recent business issues out of the rearview mirror as much as possible.”

NBA TV Audience:
2011-12 Averages

ABC: 5.4 million viewers, +6% from last year
TNT: 2.6 million viewers, +8% from last year
ESPN: 1.9 million viewers, flat from last year
NBA TV: 337,000 viewers, +31% from last year

Note: Viewership is compared to-date for this season and last, with the 2011-12 season tipping off on Christmas Day.

Sources: Networks, SportsBusiness Daily

But total expected league revenue this year is $3.9 billion, down from a record $4.3 billion last season. The decrease is tied mostly to a drop in gate revenue, considering that each team played eight fewer home games this season due to the work stoppage.

The biggest hit in the league’s ticket-selling business was in group sales, which fell 10 percent this year.

“We lost the entire group selling season [due to the lockout], which is during late summer and early fall,” said Chris Granger, executive vice president of team marketing and business operations for the NBA. “The group business was the hardest to rebound.”

Granger said that despite the loss of 20 percent of team sponsorship inventory due to the missed games — each club played a 66-game schedule — there was a single-digit decrease in total team sponsorship sales, though specific figures were not disclosed.

Through April 25, the NBA’s average attendance was 17,271 fans per game compared with an average of 17,323 last year over a full, 82-game 2010-11 season.

Chicago led the league at the gate for the third consecutive season, drawing an average of 22,149 fans per game and selling out every game at the United Center.

“Group sales were not as strong, but that had nothing to do with a shortened NBA season,” said Steve Schanwald, executive vice president of business operations for the Bulls. “It was a direct reflection of our strong season-ticket sales reducing the number of tickets that were available to sell to groups.”

The New Jersey Nets, playing their final season in the Prudential Center in Newark before moving to Brooklyn next season, ranked last in average attendance, drawing 13,961 fans per game.

The biggest improvement at the gate came in Philadelphia, where the Sixers, under its new ownership group led by Joshua Harris, saw their average attendance jump 18.6 percent to 17,503 fans per game at the Wells Fargo Center.

“I am surprised by the resilience [of the NBA attendance],” said Adam Kanner, a former NBA executive and chief executive officer of ScoreBig, an online ticket seller that counts NBA teams as clients. “The data we have seen shows that things are pretty much as usual, and I think things could have been worse.”

Through April 23, NBA ratings on TNT were up 6 percent to a 1.7 U.S. rating (2.6 million viewers) over the network’s lockout-shortened 41-game broadcast schedule. From Christmas Day 2010 through the end of last season, TNT aired 32 games and generated a 1.6 U.S. rating (2.4 million viewers).

Jeremy Lin’s emergence with the Knicks was one story that helped drive NBA ratings in the shortened season.
This year is the highest-rated and most-viewed NBA season on TNT in 28 years of broadcasting the NBA.

“There were more intense matchups on more nights,” said Christina Miller, senior vice president of strategy, marketing and programming for Turner Sports and general manager of NBA Digital. “Every time you think you know the narrative, it changes. First it was the lockout, then it was the Chris Paul trade, then you had Jeremy Lin. That helped us build momentum.”

Turner-run NBA TV also had a record audience this season, with viewership up 31 percent for an average of 337,000 viewers over 96 games. The network was helped by the compressed schedule bringing more marquee matchups on a nearly nightly basis.

The NBA on ABC this year was the highest-rated and most-viewed season since the network acquired NBA rights starting with the 2002-03 season. ABC generated a 3.3 U.S. rating (5.4 million viewers) over 15 games, up 10 percent from last year’s 3.0 U.S. rating (5.1 million viewers) for the same number of games.

“Lockouts can be pretty damaging to these leagues, but the viewers for the most part put the lockout behind them,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media. “There is a lot of star power scattered throughout the league, and the NBA has to feel fortunate they got in a 66-game season. Maybe they should start the league on Christmas Day every year.”

On ESPN, ratings were up slightly to an average 1.3 U.S. rating (1.9 million viewers) over 71 games through April 23 compared with a 1.2 U.S. rating (1.9 million viewers ) over 47 games over the same period last year, which was the most-watched NBA season on ESPN.

“Last season was the [NBA’s] highest-rated on ESPN, and we ended up doing a number of games this year on other nights that we haven’t had in the past,” said Leah LaPlaca, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. “That may account for some of the results. Overall, we are pleased.”

The NBA also built on its Web traffic from last year. From Christmas Day through April 21, global page views on were 5.1 billion, up 24 percent from 4.1 billion over the same period last year.

Merchandise sales at increased 24 percent versus last year, with Chicago ranking at the top of team merchandise sales. Derrick Rose of the Bulls ranked as the top jersey seller.

On the corporate partner front, the biggest addition this season was Sprint, which was added as a full marketing partner and activated heavily despite the shortened season.

Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.